Jewish World Review July 25, 2001 / 5 Menachem-Av, 5761
Towards a patent-free nirvana?
"PATENTS KILL," say the anti-globalists who want to see
patents on Aids drugs loosened for Africa. If
pharmaceuticals were not so expensive, their argument
suggests, diseases-old and new-would cease to
plague the developing world.
This hypothesis might be worth taking seriously if there
weren't a country that has already proven it false. But
there is one: India. Succumbing to one of their fits of
nationalism, Indian lawmakers thirty years ago passed the Patents Act of 1970.
The loophole-filled Act made it legal to ignore patents for drug products.
As a result, drugmakers in Bombay, Delhi, and Calcutta are free to replicate the
recipe Crixivan, Epivir, Stocrin, or any of the other new ingredients in the Aids
cocktails to their heart's content. And have been since the mid-1990s, when the
first versions of the cocktail became available.
In other words, India should be on a parallel course to the US, where many Aids
patients are now living longer. But alas, that is not what the experiment has
Today, some 1,000 people a day die of Aids in India, as my colleague Angus
Donald has reported. Another 1600 become infected with the disease, according
to UNAIDS, an arm of World Health Organisation. The periodical India Today
reported that in six Indian states - Manipur, Nagaland, Maharashtra, Andhra
Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu - epidemic levels have been reached.
With the patent obstacle and the associated high prices out of the way, why isn't
India the globe's health treatment model? One answer is that legalised
disrespect for intellectual property hurts product quality; drugs in India may be
plentiful, or cheap, but they are too often unreliable.
But another is that patents are not really the problem when it comes to challenges
like Aids. As in Africa, citizens who are well-informed about the dangers of the
disease still routinely engage in the sort of risky behaviour that can infect them.
Literacy, good roads, efficient hospitals and medical infrastructure - all the
components required to deliver and monitor the taking of the Aids cocktail are
Naturally, there are those within India and outside it who would contest the
pro-patent thesis. One is Yusuf Hamied, the chief executive officer India's big drug
company, Cipla. Mr Hamied has been pressuring Western drug companies to
distribute their drugs at cost or for free in his country. He's even been lauded as a
cultural hero for doing so. (See Business Week's July 2 issue, "The Stars of
But observers ought to be wary of pinning too much hope on such efforts. Aids, in
fact, is not the first Indian example of the futility of scapegoating intellectual
property. That honour belongs to tuberculosis.
TB drugs were discovered so long ago that their patents have expired, yet TB,
which ought to have been eradicated, is a growing health danger in India -
"rampant" is the word the Indian press sometimes uses. And with AIDS around
now to weaken immune systems, the TB-AIDS nexus threatens much of the
Fortunately, the Indian experiment with abuse of intellectual property could come
to an end in 2005. That's the date by which India, along with other developing
countries, must comply with the World Trade Organisation's new patent regime,
the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Property Rights.
That is, unless the anti-globalist crowd frightens western governments into
abrogating or eroding the agreement, and giving into the absurd notion that a
patent-free world can yield health
JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times
. Her latest book is
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